General strike in Argentina over ailing economy

Workers and members of political parties march down a main road as part of a 24-hour strike across Argentina called by opposition labour unions in Buenos Aires on August 28, 2014. The unions staged their second general strike this year on Thursday to
Workers and members of political parties march down a main road as part of a 24-hour strike across Argentina called by opposition labour unions in Buenos Aires on August 28, 2014. The unions staged their second general strike this year on Thursday to protest soaring inflation, higher taxes and job cuts. The strike, called by the powerful CGT labour organisation, impacted trains, air transport, gas stations and public administration. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BUENOS AIRES (AFP) - Argentine workers launched a general strike Thursday to protest rising unemployment and runaway inflation, adding to President Cristina Kirchner's headaches as her government deals with a new debt default.

Union members and radical activists barricaded the major roads into Buenos Aires Thursday morning and blocked buses and taxis whose drivers were not observing the strike, the second in less than five months.

Three of the recession-hit country's five main union federations joined the 24-hour strike.

The unions said 85 per cent of workers observed the stayaway, but the government insisted the figure was just 25 per cent.

"If I didn't come to work they were going to dock my pay, and in this crisis you've got to work, otherwise it's like attacking your own wallet," said dental technician Jose Hernandez as he walked to work in Buenos Aires's Recoleta neighborhood.

The streets of the capital were quiet but not empty, with banks and stores open, buses and taxis running, and half the city's six subway lines operating.

But the walkout shut down trains, trucks and domestic flights.

It was also largely observed in various provinces, including central Cordoba, central-eastern Santa Fe and northern Jujuy.

The strike was called in protest over rising joblessness - the unemployment rate is currently 7.5 per cent, up 1.1 points so far this year - and 30 per cent annual inflation that has gutted workers' salaries.

Unions are also calling for a one-year embargo on layoffs, increased subsidies for families and the abolition of an income tax they say has added to their financial woes at a time when the value of the peso is tumbling.

Officially, the peso is worth about 12 US cents (15 Singapore cents), but on the black market that determines Argentines' real import power it fetches just seven.

Workers joining the strike include train drivers, bankers, port workers, public hospital employees and truckers.

But unlike the last general strike on April 10, which paralysed much of the economy, the key bus drivers' union did not take part.

"We are making the same demands we made on April 10. But now the situation is worse," said Pablo Micheli, leader of anti-government union CTA.

"Four months later, buying power has fallen sharply."

Argentine cabinet chief Jorge Capitanich called the strike a political stunt.

"There's not a shadow of a doubt that this strike is of a political nature, with opposition objectives. A large number of these union members are part of the opposition political alliance," he told journalists.

The strike comes as the government finds itself mired in its second debt default in 13 years after failing to reach a settlement with two US hedge funds refusing to accept less than full payment on their Argentine bonds after the country's 2001 default.

The funds won a US court ruling blocking the South American country from repaying creditors who accepted a write-down until it settles the US$1.3-billion dispute.

Unable to service its restructured debt, the country entered another default on July 30.

Analysts had warned a new default could deepen Argentina's recession and fuel inflation and unemployment.

The Argentine economy shrank 0.8 per cent in the first quarter of 2014 and 0.5 per cent in the final quarter of last year.

The government is facing mounting pressure from businesses to devalue the peso, which it already devalued 20 per cent in January.